When I first heard about keeping a life list, it seemed a little crazy. Writing down when and where you see a bird species for the first time sounded like something only professional ornithologists or obsessive people would do. While I’m certainly no professional, I can be obsessive and I love keeping lists, so I finally started one myself. What I didn’t realize was how much richer my life would be because of it.
On my trips to Maryland to see my parents, I often pick up some new species. This last trip, I saw all of them right in the backyard. This is where the life list idea is weird, especially if you get started late in life (in my case, after age 50). My list says I saw my first purple finch on April 17, 2019, but they are winter residents in Maryland and I lived there for over a decade. I must have seen purple finches when I was a kid, I just didn’t know it at the time.
The same is probably true for black vultures. I definitely remember vultures soaring overhead, but until recently, I assumed that the vultures in Maryland were all turkey vultures. Now that I’ve seen black vultures flying, I wonder how I didn’t notice them before. The white “jazz hand” markings on their wings are markedly different from the white feathers that fringe the trailing edge of a turkey vulture’s. But the fact is, I never saw a black vulture until July of 2018, even though we lived in the same place in the 70s and 80s.
Even the sounds of Maryland are different to me now that I know more about birds. I saw my first fish crow in April, too. It was flying overhead, and given how much American crows and fish crows look alike, I would have assumed it was an American crow. But this bird was calling, and the squeaky-toy sound was so different from the familiar caw of the American crow that I knew I had a new bird. I vaguely remember hearing these sounds as a kid, but I never thought about what was making them.
What I missed as a kid, I might have missed as an adult. Keeping a life list gets me to stop and pay attention to my surroundings. I look hard at every bird I see, to make sure that this particular bird is a species I am familiar with. It’s amazing how often I pause, thinking I know what’s in front of me and then realize in fact it’s something new.
Keeping a life list puts me in the moment. I’m constantly on the lookout for birds, paying attention in a way I never did before. I’ve seen life birds while running errands, in parking lots, at feeders. The birds that have always been there. I just didn’t see them before.
A life list is more about living than listing. Keeping one enriches our lives, inspiring us to look and listen closely, to be right here, right now. It also gives us a greater appreciation for the wonder all around us, wonder we can find right in our own back yards.
Do you keep a life list?